Agency chiefs have a reputation as a prickly lot. Part of that is attributable to the stresses that come with the job. Still, the stories of willfully mean, needlessly dismissive behavior from agency leaders and founders are legion.
Zero people have such tales about Robert Leverte, which is why news of his pending induction into the Medical Advertising Hall of Fame was received warmly when it was made public last October.
Founder of The Leverte Group, Ruvane-Leverte Advertising, and ER Squibb & Sons’ in-house agency ERS, Leverte eschewed Mad Men bluster in favor of a lower-key, more attentive approach to client and employee relations.
“Bob was as good with clients as anyone you’ve ever seen,” says John Witt, a partner in The Leverte Group and a creative giant in his own right. “He had everyone’s respect because he was soft-spoken, and you could trust what he said. He had a gift for getting the most out of everybody.”
If that’s his professional legacy, Leverte is more than happy with it. “I always believed no man is an island unto himself,” he says. “In my career, I was really dependent on the people I associated myself with. I hope I treated them in an honorable, respectful way.”
Of course, the MAHF doesn’t count only basic human decency among its criteria for enshrinement. While Leverte’s peers lead with their opinion of him, they’re quick to note his skill and influence as a leader of agencies, in-house and out.
Like many other marketers of his vintage, Leverte began his career as a sales rep at Schering Laboratories. In the mid-1960s, he slid over to the marketing side of the business.
“It was a good time to make the move. The industry was growing and retrenching simultaneously,” Leverte recalls.
He soon landed at Robert A. Becker, where his work on the Eli Lilly account attracted attention from ER Squibb, which hired him as advertising manager and eventually charged him with founding the company’s in-house ad agency.
“When they gave me the challenge of reviewing the way we did advertising, I didn’t love what I saw. So the idea of starting something of our own was very appealing,” Leverte explains. “I went to [Squibb prexy] Mike Bongiovanni and told him, ‘I’m going to need commitment and the resources to pay competitively. And the creative people we hire will be a little different than our in-house product managers.’” Bongiovanni gave Leverte the go-ahead and ERS, one of the first and best-regarded in-house agencies, was born.
Leverte ran ERS for half a decade or so, then left for a marketing post at Winthrop. However, he found himself longing for “the freedom and pace” of the agency world. A conversation with fellow MAHF inductee Frank Corbett helped clarify Leverte’s thinking and subsequent career direction.
“He told me, ‘Don’t outrun your own headlights.’ What he meant was to never lose sight of the business you have. You could get in trouble chasing the next client or the next job,” Leverte recalls.
He heeded that advice over the course of his career. One constant was a steady volume of work from Astra AB, even after the company’s mega-merger with Zeneca Group. In fact, Astra’s support spurred the formation of Ruvane-Leverte.
“[Astra president] John Pfeiffer, who I worked with at Squibb and Winthrop, told me, ‘I’m having difficulties with my agency.’ When I asked what the problem was, he said, ‘I don’t know. I never paid attention to any of that stuff — you always did that,’” Leverte recalls. “He remembered I wanted to do my own thing at some point. ‘I know you’re thinking about starting an agency. Do you want a client?’”
After selling The Leverte Group to HealthStar in 2001, Leverte consulted before retiring in 2006. He remains a keen observer of medical marketing. However, he isn’t entirely enthused by what he sees.
“There are some very strong programs, but there’s also frivolous stuff about what quality-of-life drugs can do,” he says. “Our work has done and can do so much good in terms of educating people and pros, but that’s all [diminished] when the conversation is about high drug prices. There used to be more of a moral and ethical compass leading the decisions that were made.”